Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Damned leaf raking wimps

It’s fall, and roving gangs of young men with gasoline-powered blowers have descended upon the neighborhood to blow the leaves out of some of the neighbor’s yards. They work quickly and efficiently, six-to-ten-to-a-crew. They rev their engines high for ten minutes or so, then they move on, leaving my neighbor’s yard clean, my yard full of leaves—and my heart full of conflicting emotions.

I admire their youth and their industry. For young men with gasoline powered blowers and the will to work, money must seem to be falling from the sky this time of year. If I were young, I’d be out there gunning my engine right along with them.

But peeking through the living room drapes, watching the crew next door work, I can sense past generations of leaf raking Minnesotans looking over my shoulder and shaking their heads in disgust.

Not raking your own yard. Phooey. It’s just plain un-Minnesotan. How were you raised\ for crying out loud?

Raking your yard is your last chance to get in some good, old-fashioned, contemplative yard work before the snow flies—a chance to assess not just the state of your lawn and flower beds, but the state of your mind as well.

You can do a lot of reflecting on the business end of a rake. The scratch of the tines, the cascading sound of the leaves, and the smell of autumn on the air… It will help you get right with the world

It’s humbling-yet-affirming work. It builds character, provided you stick to it.

A friend of mine who lives in the Chippewa National Forest up near Walker tells me he raked himself to a standstill the other day. He just couldn’t shake the idea that the trees had him outnumbered and surrounded. So he gave up. He went in, had a peanut butter sandwich, and took a nap. The leaf piles in his yard will be there until spring.

Not me. Nossir. I’ll show those roving gangs of leaf blowing young men and the neighbors who hire them. I’ll get out there and rake my own yard myself. I’ll stick to it , too. Until every last leaf is gone, It’s good work. It’s Minnesota work. It will do my Minnesota heart and soul good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New U football coach needs old fashioned gumption

There’s a new breed of football coach stalking the sidelines these days—a 21st Century man. A dispassionate Chief Executive in expensive slacks. A corporatist with systems for offense. Systems for defense. Systems for everything, right down to scheduling Booster Club snack stand duty.

Coach Vince Lombardi built his Packer system around the sweep play. Bud Grant’s system just out-gritted the opposition. This new breed of coach relies on a system of percentages, data, and options so complicated that he carries it around on a plastic coated, color coordinated chart the size of a pancake house menu, and he seems to consult his chart at length on every play.

It’s complicated at the high school level, more so in college, and all but impossible to comprehend in pro ball.

Watching Vikings coach Brad Childress study his chart, my friends and I have taken to turning to one another and shrugging. Fans are screaming, Momentum is surging or ebbing. Players are panting, sweating, striving and grunting. And there stands Coach Childress, studying his chart, the picture of actuarial dispassion.

It’s, the chart, the whole chart, and nothing but the chart with these guys. Even when common sense dictates they do something else.

Up 41-16 against the Gophers two weeks ago, the Wisconsin coach went for a two-point play after a touchdown late in the game. It was rubbing the Gophers nose in the score. It was just plain bad sportsmanship. Asked why he did it, the coach said the chart told him to.

All well and good, as long as “Coach” wins. But when their teams lose, all these modern coaches seem able to do is stand there and look analytical. Evidently, indignation and outrage are not on the chart.

It’s unprofessional. It’s juvenile. But sometimes coaching football calls for a good old fashioned expletive-filled meltdown. The kind oldtime coaches with 2.0 grade point averages and degrees in Geography and bum knees from their own football glory days used to have.

Sadly, no. Not to be. Not from this new breed of coach. He’s playing the percentages, not our traditionally-reviled rivals. Meanwhile, up here in the bleachers, we fans fume and fulminate.

It’s time to dig in and make a stand. C’mon. Put some heart into your system, Coach. Stop crunching numbers. Start crunching the other guys.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wish I bought that bird a bus ticket

It was October in the Boundary Waters. It had been raining for two days. We were three young guys hunkered down in a leaky tent on Lake Agnes, just south of Lac le Croix.

There is only so much hunkering down you can do with two other guys in a leaky tent. If the monotony doesn’t get you, the soggy sleeping bag will. Sooner or later, for sanity’s sake, you have to get up and get out. So I pulled on a cheap plastic poncho and crawled out to have a look around.

On a path near camp, I came across an old robin. He was hunkered down too, huddling in the roots of a huge old white pine, and I squatted down to say hello.

He was a bedraggled little guy. His face feathers had gone gray, and there was a far-off look in his beady little eyes, as if he were thinking about the warm weather at the other end of the flyway—weather he would never experience again. He was obviously awaiting the inevitable.

I told the other guys about him when I got back to the tent, and we thought maybe we could pack him out with us when we left. Maybe we could find a shoebox and some cotton batting in Ely. We could put him in it, along with some birdseed and water, and give the box to a bus driver headed for Florida. The driver could release him when they got there.

But we forgot him. We stayed too long and had to pull up stakes in a hurry. We were three miles and two portages down the river toward Ely before we remembered.

Every so often, I find myself on one of those paths that wend through the north woods, up a hill, around a curve, over the roots of an old white pine. I look down and see the ghost of that robin looking up with accusatory disgust.

“You left me,” he seems to be saying. “I could have seen Miami one more time.”

The guilt is not insurmountable. But it’s feathered and frumpy and wet with cold October rain. I should do something to put things right.

So if you see an old robin around let me know. I just looked online. Bus fare to Florida is ninety-nine bucks one way.